"Part of what's great about doing standup is you walk around with a living novel that is your act. And it's constantly changing. And you have to leave things behind even though they're signatures, even though they're great pieces."
– John Wing
Guy MacPherson: Do you have a few moments?
John Wing: (to someone else) It's a telephone interview. Can we put off filming the movie for a moment while I do a telephone interview? (sounds of whining) Oh, this is going to cause some trouble. No, it's fine. Perfectly fine.
GM: Home movies going on?
JW: My daughter has written a film and we were about to film it and I'm playing Dr. McFiendish.
GM: How old is she?
JW: She's nine.
GM: Wow. Precociously talented.
JW: Well, yes. I certainly hope so. I don't know how the heck I'm going to make a living unless she starts doing it pretty soon. Earning her keep.
GM: Exactly. I just had a kid in hopes that one day he'll be able to support me.
JW: My friend Alan has a joke: "My daughter got a commercial. She's only six years old. She's got a commercial and made a whole bunch of money, making her the youngest by ten years woman ever to pay my rent."
GM: Where are you? In LA?
JW: I am. Down in LA. I've lived here for almost 17 years.
GM: But it always seems that you're working up here. Do you work up here more than you do in the States?
JW: I work in Canada more than I work in the continental United States. But I work a lot in the Caribbean now on cruise ships. On Royal Caribbean. RCCL. So I'm in various countries. Island nations.
GM: How do you like that?
JW: It's okay, you know? They pay well; they treat you pretty well. Yeah, I don't mind it.
GM: I've heard that a lot of cruise ship comics are bad, but I know that you're great, so it would be good to be on a cruise and to see you! That would be like, "Wow, I actually got a good comic!"
JW: (laughs) The Royal Caribbean has the best entertainers afloat. And if you print that, it can't hurt me.
GM: Do you get to take the family?
JW: I haven't taken the kids, but I've taken my wife. It cuts into what they pay you. You can't take the family for free or anything. You have to pay dock dues or some crazy dues thing. So I've only taken my wife once, but I haven't taken... Because if I take one child then the next year I have to take the other. Work is work and I don't mix the two.
GM: You're from Sarnia originally?
JW: That's true.
GM: Was it tough getting used to LA or are you the adaptable type who can fit in anywhere?
JW: If you grow up small town, you're always small town. I can get around LA. Before I learned to get around LA, I learned to get around Toronto, which is a pretty difficult proposition in itself, especially in a car. I like Toronto much better now because when I'm there I don't have a car so I can find my way other ways. But I like living in the small neighbourhood where I live. Nothing much has changed in terms of how I deal with it.
GM: I assume you moved down for career reasons.
JW: That's correct.
GM: The guy who you're performing with up here, Jebb Fink, moved the other way and did very well for himself.
GM: Where do you think you'd be if you'd stayed in Canada?
JW: (pause) You know, Guy, I prefer not to think about that. There have been times when it has occurred to me that perhaps staying might have been an option I didn't consider.
GM: Back in, what was it, 1990?
GM: '88. Staying probably didn't seem like as big of an option as it does now.
JW: I had worked 47 weeks out of town in the previous year. I think I worked 50 weeks overall, and I thought I don't know how I'm ever going to make any more money working 50 weeks. I could stay here [Canada] and make this kind of money forever – or for a while, anyway – or I could go there and make ten times the amount, possibly. But I don't think I could go to LA and do worse than I'm doing now. And I'm the kind of person who would rather go and fail than not go and wonder how I would have done. And looking at it backwards, that's one of the reasons I don't think too much about what would have happened if I had stayed. There are days, especially bright sunny, seasonably warm days in mid-January when the sky is blue and I'm sitting outside, that I don't really worry too much about it.
GM: You never think of wanting to go home?
JW: Oh, I very much want to go home.
GM: Oh do you?
JW: Oh, absolutely. I've been working toward it. But now I've got two children who were born here and a wife who is from Oregon and has lived in Los Angeles almost twenty years. And they've set up a pretty good system here. To move merely because it would make me happier isn't really an option unless the exact kind of deal that I want comes.
GM: It would be met with some resistance, you're telling me.
JW: Um, well, not so much. I understand it as I have to achieve something in Canada that makes our life there at least as good as it is here if not better. And you live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and Toronto is another very expensive city. And both places are more expensive to live in than where I live, which is hard to believe but absolutely true.
GM: Wow. I must be rolling in it. I didn't even realize it.
GM: You were on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
JW: Yes, sir.
GM: In those days, that was a big deal. The Tonight Show these days...
JW: ... is not a big deal.
GM: You could be missed completely because there are so many options to watch. I hear stories of comics going on Carson and the next day they're recognized out on the street.
JW: For me, I didn't go out on the street much, but you get work. Within a week of doing the show, you'd suddenly book up a shitload of work. And that was a good thing. And you would be recognized occasionally, mostly by your peers. I still remember walking into the Improv after my first one about a few weeks later and Jeff Foxworthy, who at that time – this would be '90, so 15 years ago – so even then he was pretty hot. And he and his wife were sitting at a table at the Improv and he called me over and we had never met. But I had joined a rather exclusive club. And that club allowed me entry into those guys. I got to meet some pretty good guys. But nowadays you have to watch a lot of Tonight Shows before you see a comedian. A lot of them. There truly aren't a lot of comedians on. They've successfully gotten rid of the comedian spot on the show.
GM: And you don't want to have to sit through that many Tonight Shows without seeing a comedian because that can be painful.
JW: Ha! You said that; I didn't. I have gotten addicted to late night on the Game Show network. They show To Tell The Truth from the '60s and What's My Line? from the '50s. I'm really into What's My Line? Sometimes I'll watch a little bit of Letterman. The show I watch religiously is Jon Stewart. That's the show. I think he's actually the best interviewer of the five white males now doing talk shows after the news, if you count Craig Ferguson. But I think Jon is the best. And I've only recently got into Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
GM: He has his own show?
JW: No, but I was on a ship, and on the crew channel they played his DVD, The Best of Triumph on a loop for about five straight days. So I watched it continuously. And I had never seen him. I had heard about his controversy in Quebec City but I had not seen it. And so I got to see a whole bunch of things that he does.
GM: Canadians don't produce too many insult comics, do they?
JW: Um... There is at least one. When he started out... There's a guy named Lou Eisen who's about to do very well. I believe he has an excellent role in Cinderella Man, which will be out this summer. Russell Crowe. And Ron Howard directed it. It's about Jim Braddock, a boxer. And I believe Lou is playing his corner man. And Lou, when he started, was an insult comic. And I've worked with a few of them. But it does seem to be a breed of comedian that is rare, that's true. And we don't produce a whole lot of them, that's absolutely right.
GM: How would you describe your style of comedy?
JW: Uh, extremely funny. Uh, I would say I'm...
JW: I would say I'm dry although occasionally I can get rather moist. But dry I would say to a degree. Technically flawless would be another way I would describe myself. (chuckles) I like to have things read funny on a page as well as be funny when you say them. I like to have both in the act. I like to have things that require your attitude. I like jokes that'll be one line or two lines and I also like long story sequence pieces. I like to vary my pitch. I get them started with some rapid fire stuff and then slow it down and do some longer pieces. I like to wring every prop out of a piece.
JW: Prop. That is to say get everything out of every piece of comedy I have. I have a bit in my show about dating a dominatrix. I wrote it as a single joke. Three lines. Boom, boom, boom, here's the joke. And nobody got it. I ad libbed it at a table full of friends one night and they all thought it was very funny because they understood what the term 'safe word' means. Do you know what a safe word is?
GM: Yeah, where the dominatrix stops after you say a specific word.
JW: Yeah. So I brought this cute little three-line joke on the stage and discovered that the majority of most audiences have no idea what a safe word is. So I had to write a long piece in order to get around to a logical place where I could explain the safe word. I had to tell an entire story, which is a rare thing.
GM: And then the joke went over well.
JW: Ehh...There are aspects of it now that do very well, but the actual punchline I'm still tinkering with because now it's a long story and it comes to a payoff that often just isn't enough for what I've put into it. So unfortunately it's been a great source of frustration. But I keep tinkering. Because I'm a born tinkerer with my act.
GM: And you care about the word, too, obviously if you care about how it reads on a page.
JW: Oh sure.
GM: You're a writer so that makes sense.
JW: Well, as a performer, every rule is there for a reason and you can also break 'em all. That's the cool thing about writing. I changed a joke the other day. I tried something different in the joke. My wife said, 'You rarely change a joke by adding a word.' And it's true: I very rarely do. Most of the the time I'm taking words away because adding is not good. But in this case I thought adding was right. 'It's a myth' was my punchline. And I changed it to 'It's an urban myth.' And it did much better. You're just changing the shading on it slightly. She said, 'What's an urban myth?' and I said, 'Richard Gere getting a hamster removed from his ass. That's an urban myth.' (laughs)
GM: Does your material change much when you perform it in Canada or elsewhere?
JW: Um, I have a lot of Canadian material so I get to trot out my Canadian stuff and try and keep it sharp. Yes. And writing for the Winnipeg Comedy Festival the last three years, writing specific pieces for me to perform at that festival, has bulked up my act with Canadian pieces. Which I'm very pleased to do. And sometimes I can sneak in... I still do an old Canadian piece, or parts of an old Canadian piece, in my ship act. But mostly the difference in Canada is songs. I do a lot of songs.
GM: I was going to say, you've gone back to playing your guitar.
JW: Yeah, I've started to write funny songs. I've got a whole bunch of them now. Full-length, original, lyrics and music songs. The old days I used to do parodies, but now I'm starting to write them full-length. I'm trying to write something for this show in Vancouver. If I can get it done in the next week I'll have it for Winnipeg, too. Something about living wills. But so far I'm a single verse into it and it's not exactly right yet. I need to write a few more verses.
GM: I first heard you on an album – I don't even know what year it was – the Yuk Yuk's album. And you did the...
JW: 'Hope You Die'.
GM: That was a great song.
JW: Thank you. I kind of grew out of doing it. I did it in Winnipeg a couple of years ago and an old friend of mine came up and said, 'You know, you're too old for that one.' I said, 'I think you're right.' So it's been retired.
GM: The 'Comedy's Better' bit would still work.
JW: To a degree, but it's also in its way a young man's piece. It's difficult to say 'comedy's better' [than sex] and then mention you've been married for 15 years.
GM: Well, that's why comedy's better!
JW: Exactly. Part of what's great about doing standup is you walk around with a living novel that is your act. And it's constantly changing. And you have to leave things behind even though they're signatures, even though they're great pieces. My brother asked me about a piece I used to do about meeting a stripper. Pardon me, an exotic dancer. And I complement her on her breasts and she mentions that she just had them operated on. And I asked what that cost and she said five thousand dollars. And I said, 'Wow, that's a lot of scrimping and saving.' And she said, 'No, I got a loan.' And I said, 'You mean you and the bank own your tits?' Is that really the kind of society we want to be living in where the bank finances tits? And women come into the bank all the time: 'I have a small business... and I'm looking to expand.' And it was a fun little joke I used to do. But it was part of a larger piece about going to a strip club that never satisfied me that I did for about a year off and on, and it never really worked. It was the funniest piece in the bit, but when I dumped the bit, I dumped all of it. And I couldn't really remember much of anything in the rest of the piece, but that joke my brother mentioned he used to like that. So things come and they go, they come, they go.
GM: You brought it back?
JW: I haven't brought it back yet but it's been in my mind.
GM: You say you have trouble remembering the whole bit. Do you write down your act?
JW: Yeah, sure.
GM: Okay. So you could go back and see how it goes.
JW: I'd have to go back into old notebooks. I wrote a piece last year. Cosmopolitan had a thing called 'Seven Strange Ideas Men Have About Sex'. One of the headlines. The woman next to me at the gym was reading it. And I wrote a piece on that, which I haven't done in a long time. I've probably only done it 15 or 20 times total. Another piece I never quite got the key to, you know? So you keep going: what's the next thing? What kind of experience am I going to have that will allow me to write something else.
GM: You've written your autobiography.
JW: A memoir.
GM: And many books on poetry. Have you ever written a novel?
JW: I have not. I've started a couple, but I've never... I'm not convinced I have the stuff to do a novel. Maybe someday.
GM: When did you start writing poetry?
JW: In high school.
GM: Was that to court women?
JW: Ha, no I wrote it for myself. I've never... It later turned out to be a tool for courting women, but initially I didn't see it that way.
GM: What does your family think about them? Because they're very personal poems. I know you've got some issues with your father.
JW: Not anymore. Although the piece I'm writing for Winnipeg is called 'Becoming My Father'.
GM: And you're a junior, too.
JW: For the first time ever I've written a piece about that, for the comedy stage. About being a junior. And I tried it twice over the weekend. I did a two-nighter up in northern California. The 'junior' piece was weak; it had some problems. I have to work on it. Um, my family is pretty good about artistic expression being artistic expression. They don't really tend to get too displeased about it. So they're very nice about it.
GM: But it's also more than artistic expression, isn't it, when it's your real feelings?
JW: Uh, no, I'm making most of it up.
GM: In the poetry?
GM: What? Is that true?
JW: Part of being an artist is attempting for your whole life to convince people you're not full of shit. So I'm not going to answer any more questions about my real feelings in what I write about. Some of it's true and some of it's not. In everything I write: Some of it's true and some of it's not. I tried in the memoir to get it as right as I remembered it, but in the poetry there are poems that are entirely made up and there are poems that are entirely true. But very few. Most of them are a mix, like the jokes.
GM: I understand that with the jokes and other writing, but I've never written poetry. I just assumed that with poetry it was all true. That's good to know. Do you have more books coming out?
JW: I have a new book coming out in the next three or four months. A book of poems called 'Excuses'. It's my fourth book. And after that one I will have a new and selected poems. The working title is Small Pieces of Sky. However, no working title... It'll be five books, and out of five books, one of my working titles actually became the real title. So I rarely get a working title in. But on my computer the file is called 'Small Pieces of Sky, selected poems from 1990 to 2006,' or something like that. But the new book is called Excuses by Mosaic Press.
GM: You said that you're working on a song for Vancouver.
JW: Well, I'm working on a song that if I finish it I will play it in Vancouver. I think I have a new song since I was in Vancouver last. A really filthy piece of material which I'm very proud of. (laughs)
GM: Will the show with Jebb Fink be more political, being a Can-Am show?
JW: He talks about Canada from the American perspective and I talk about America from a Canadian perspective. And I also talk about Canada, too. And we each talk about the differences. And I also have a view of Canadian politics that he doesn't because I'm separated from it and I hear about it mostly secondhand. It's an odd sort of thing. So his view of it is sharper and mine is more detached, to a degree.
GM: And I guess the good thing about living in the States is that when you reference American politics, we know what you're talking about.
JW: Yes, that's right.
GM: So I guess your views on that...
JW: Yes, although I tend to stay... Cruise ships teach you that you really need to stay away from politics.
GM: And religion.
JW: Well, certainly religion, good God. I did a joke the other night and the audience in Pismo Beach was very good the first night. And I said, 'I don't know if I should do this joke.' And they said, 'Do it, do it, do it.' 'It just occurred to me,' I said, 'every time I see the video of Terry Schiavo, her face reminds me of the faces of my daughters after they've watched nine straight hours of television.' Which they really liked but upon reflection I decided it wasn't much of a joke. It's very difficult to make a joke about that... But I'm gonna keep trying!
GM: Can you be as filthy or subversive on a cruise ship?
JW: No, you can't be either. You have to be very calm and very non-threatening. This is the time of year where the audience is full of kids, and the summer as well, so you have to be very non-threatening and non-controversial.
GM: That's the thing about having a real pro doing it with many years behind you. You have a wealth of material you can draw from.
JW: You have crystalized my thoughts eloquently.